Monday, July 31, 2006

American Gospel

Have you ever read a book that seems like a simple extension of all that you know already, yet it ties together all the threads in a way you'd never seen? For me, Jon Meacham's newest book, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, is such a book.

Meacham, who also authored the amazing Franklin and Winston and still has time to be managing editor of Newsweek, makes a reasoned and researched case for religious freedom in America. He shows not only that we need it, but that we've always had it. Since Day One, the founders of this nation incorporated freedom of belief into the very fabric of the American dream.

The book traces the history of America's relationship with faith through the Founding Fathers, the Civil War, World Wars I & II, Civil Rights, and more recently the Christian Right. Despite this breadth, it's a fast, engaging read.

It's the kind of book where you find yourself marking passages as you go. Here are some that I marked:

The great good news about America—the American gospel, if you will—is that religion shapes the life of the nation without strangling it. Belief in God is central to the country's experience, yet for the broad center, faith is a matter of choice, not coercion, and the legacy of the Founding is that the sensible center holds.

Extremism is a powerful alliance of fear and certitude; complexity and humility are its natural foes. Faith and life are essentially mysterious, for neither God nor nature is easily explained or understood. Crusades are for the weak, literalism for the insecure.

Properly understood, both religion and America were forged through compromise and negotiation. They are works in progress, open to new interpretation, amendment, and correction. … In either case, the story is about moving forward, through the darkness, searching for light.

[W]hat kind of God was so weak he needed the authorities of the colony of Virginia, or of Massachusetts, or of Connecticut, or any other to prop him up? "It is error alone which needs the support of government," Jefferson said, "Truth can stand by itself." Franklin agreed: "When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support [it], so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one."

The extremes, while colorful and quotable, were just that: the extremes. The line most people seem to draw is one of grace and civility. No one should be forced, as a matter of routine, to participate in (or even have to choose not to participate in, by leaving a classroom) a religious exercise that makes him uncomfortable.

"We are tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality," [Martin Luther] King said. "And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God's universe is made; this is the way it is structured."

A grasp of history is essential for Americans of the center who struggle to decide how much weight to assign a religious consideration in a public matter. To fail to consult the past consigns us to what might be called the tyranny of the present—the mistaken idea that the crises of our own time are unprecedented and that we have to solve them without experience to guide us. Subject to such tyranny, we are more likely to take a narrow or simplistic view, or to let our passions get the better of our reason. If we know, however, how those who came before us found the ways and means to surmount the difficulties of their age, we stand a far better chance of acting in the moment with perspective and measured judgment. Light can neither enter into nor emanate from a closed mind.

I found, as I read, that I am very comfortable being part of the broad center. I believe with James Madison, "Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and observe the religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us."

Yep, Madison took the words right out of my mouth. So while I may share with you what I've learned from my own journey, I'll never try to dissuade you from your own honest convictions. That's the American way.


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1 Comments:

At 7/31/2006 02:03:00 PM, Blogger athos said...

this is awesome, laura...thank you for mentioning it. And thank God it has come out now...should be required reading for all.

 

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